Reading, Thoreau writes, is the pursuit of truth, which is immortal, while wealth and material possessions are petty and fleeting. He believes that to read well is noble and advocates that all people should learn ancient languages and read the classics. The writer is superior to the orator, he argues, just as written language is superior to spoken language, which is common. For Thoreau, a written work of art is both universal and intimate and is the art that most closely resembles life. He believes that books are the true wealth of civilizations and that writers exert more influence on people than do kings.
By feeling the need to urge all people to read well and make the point that great written art and the spiritual wealth it can bestow are universal, Thoreau implicitly acknowledges that most people do not want to experience it, contenting themselves with spoken language and material possessions. The paradox of writing is that it represents the greatest achievement of civilizations but is known by so few.
Thoreau calls on people to strive to read well. Instead, he says, most people aim too low, ignoring the classics in favor of easy reading, which he mocks, or focusing on only one book, the Bible. In this way, their intellectual and moral faculties have deteriorated. Thoreau aspires to know better men than his Concord peers: the ancients. He believes books are the way great people "explain our miracles and reveal new ones" and that by reading well, spiritual greatness can be achieved.
Thoreau is presenting another paradox: because so few people in his culture care about matters of the intellect, his reading is a solitary pursuit, but it connects him in the most profound possible way to the writers whom he reads even if they are long dead.
Concord and places like it are culturally empty, Thoreau says, and need to be provoked to strive for greater achievements. Concord's schools for children are satisfactory, he says, but there must also be schools for adults, because education must never end. He laments that the town spends money on unnecessary luxuries but not on its citizens' mental life. He wishes for a noble village.
Thoreau sees his book as a way to awaken the townspeople to the life he believes is spiritually rich and to convince them to leave behind concerns that demean their lives.